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August 17, 2015


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I found this very interesting, challenging to say the least to my "common sense" understanding. Are morals subjective or objective?

Frank, that's a big question. Here's a pertinent quote (p. 283) from "Nature's God" that does a pretty good job of summarizing the transcendent vs. immanent approaches to morality -- which sort of line up with the objective vs. subjective question.


"The common view, say the radicals, begins with the valid intuition that the good cannot be something that fluctuates according to every change in fancy of an arbitrary will. It must come with reasons, and those reasons must be found in our understanding of things as they are, not as we wish them to be.

However, the common view -- misled by those common misconceptions about the self and mind with which we are already familiar -- goes on to suppose falsely that because our idea of the good does not involve an arbitrary affirmation of the will, it must therefore be a fixed property of things in themselves.

In effect it multiplies the errors of the common conception of mind, for it imagines that the good exists independently of our all our reasons for thinking that it is good, in the same way it imagines that our representations stand before consciousness independently of the reasons for which we hold them true.

Yet in taking this extra step toward an imaginary certainty, the common view destroys the very insight with which it begins. In direct violation of the guiding principle of philosophy, it renders the good an arbitrary feature of the world, a motive independent of all motives, a cause that can move us without itself answering to any other cause, something we are obliged to do for no other reason that that it is good to be good.

The immanent conception, on the other hand, stays longer with the insight at the core of the common conception. It, too, says that there are always reasons to be good, and then it further insists that we can always continue to reflect on those reasons, and ask why the good is good.

In keeping with the guiding principle, it says that whatever moves us, like whatever moves anything in the infinite universe, must be explicable. So the good always comes with reasons for its goodness; those reasons must refer to those motives that we generically identify as pleasure and pain; and those reflections on the affections can always be the subject of further reflection, elaboration, and qualification.

The inherent intelligibility of moral life, in other words, rules out the very possibility that arbitrary dogmas, creeds, or acts of faith can ever be more than provisional and revisable by-products of a moral life. Those who misguidedly maintain that there is some good independent of all our motives, according to this radical critique, do not in fact succeed in creating one.

They simply read their own motives into the things themselves and confuse their limited perspective with a fixed fact about the world. In establishing some imaginary authority outside of themselves, they really only oppose themselves to themselves, and the vaunted certainty of their conviction serves chiefly to mark the tenacity of their ignorance."

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